All photographs by David Ellingsen
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Portrait #1
All photographs by David Ellingsen

Seeing the Trees Through the Forest: Vestiges of Ancient Woods

Photographer David Ellingsen’s family roots run deep. His relatives were some of the first European immigrants to settle Cortes Island, part of a small archipelago located a hundred miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1887.

“The forest really was our playground,” Ellingsen says of his childhood days. “We’d leave the house in the morning and be out in the landscape all day and come back for dinner. Growing up in a rural environment you foster a close relationship with the natural world.”

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Portrait #2

But though his youth sounds idyllic, there was a specter lurking in the old-growth forests—the barren stumps from decades of logging. “I remember walking to the school bus through this forest and these big stumps are just looming over you the whole time,” Ellingsen says. “The springboard notches cut into them [for logging] almost looked like big eyes. They became these skull-like creatures. I had three brothers, and the first time I had to walk that route myself—I must have been only six or seven at the time—it was quite scary. I have this feeling of the beauty and wonder of the forest but also this dark part of it.”

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Portrait #3

Ellingsen’s family was at the center of the logging tradition for many years. “My great-grandfather, my grandfather, my uncles, my father, and my brothers all played a part in the industry at various times. These trees are standing on the family property and they cut down most of these trees by hand themselves.”

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Portrait #4
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“Wilf and George Freeman falling timber the hard way,” says the caption on this archival photograph of Ellingsen’s great uncle and great grandfather felling a tree.

Ellingsen says that it took him a while to come to the realization that he wanted to photograph the stumps and in turn memorialize the old forest. To him, the deep cuts on the stumps tell a story in themselves. “The springboard cut is the first cut—it was symbolic to me,” he says. “I thought the marks were very iconic, almost like a mouth, scream, or wound. A full forest of these stumps is incredibly powerful to witness and to be in. Now we only have tiny little groves of them left. Now, when you walk through the forest, all of the second growth covers up the stumps in the distance.”

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Portrait #6

He approached each stump as if it were the subject of a portrait, framing it in a clean, straightforward way while bringing to light its personality.

Ellingsen is an environmentalist, which makes his perspective on his family’s livelihood unique. He says that he sees the logging of past days as a normal part of life, but he hopes that as we look forward we can see the impact of our society on the environment.

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Portrait #5

“What each of us has to offer is our own personal story, and our personal perspective and background on the world. The older I get the more I realized this was a good story. I stopped running away from my family background like I did as a younger man. I realized that the upbringing I had on the island really formed my ideas and my perceptions of the natural world. I wanted to return to that,” he says.

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Portrait #8

“For me, it’s the old story of looking at the past to inform our future, and that is something important for us to do right now, with the scale of the climate change crisis. We need to find ways that we can modify our behavior as we move forward. Especially when these things are still going on, you think of the big forests of the world—the Pacific Northwest, the Amazon, the forests of Southeast Asia and Pacifica: It’s still happening, they are still logging these vast tracts of the very last remaining first forest of the world—the old growth. We haven’t learned our lesson yet. We refuse to recognize it and proceed to plunder on and focus on the money that can be made from these forests.”

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Four Point Four Acres—This is the number of trees that would have occupied a 4.4-acre space when the old-growth forest was untouched.

Not only did Ellingsen want to teach future generations about respecting the natural world, but he also wanted to preserve the native forest in some way. “One thing that precipitated this project was watching these stumps decay … They are the very last remnants of these forests. In another lifetime, they will be completely rotted and gone,” he says.

“In a way, this series became an elegy to the forest.”

View more of David Ellingsen’s work, including art installations he created from old-growth stumps, on his website.